The Power of Design

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Love and power – they’re at the center of most everything we do. In the past two weeks, we read fifteen articles about the designer’s place in society and the power that they wield. This post is a reflection on these readings and the themes of power and design that they brought up.

Power and its Social Implications

According to George Aye, a lead designer at the Greater Good studio, “power is the ability to influence outcomes.” People have a real need to have power. Power gives individuals the ability to satisfy needs. In the most primitive sense, this can mean securing food and shelter to survive. Without power, we cannot “influence the outcome” of procuring food. We don’t only have a need to satisfy needs through power – power itself is a need. Humans have an inbuilt need for power, in part as means of assuring themselves that they can predictably influence the world around them to survive. This need for power, control, and predictability is at the heart of much what drives us in society.

The challenge is what happens when we exercise power. If we exert power on the environment, we shape it. We can make more predictable food sources through farming, using patterns and organisms in nature to create food systems that will sustain us. The fact is, however, we live in a social world, and our actions to influence the world through our power, both to satisfy our needs and to satisfy our need for power, will influence individuals. Oftentimes, then, our decisions are a mix of different individuals’ influences.

As a society, we are made up of individuals and collectives such as friend groups, families, organizations, companies, countries, and at the greatest level, we are connected by the common social contract – human beings. Each individual and collective does have shared needs, but in addition to being separate selves, because of our capitalistic, cultural, and political systems, we have developed unique properties and rights which means we have developed unique needs to satisfy.

What does this have to do with society?

When we wield our power, we must ask – “How does this power affect others, and how much am I willing to share my power to better allow for others to satisfy their needs as well?”

In society, our contracts and transactions become transactions of agreement in trading or sharing power. Are they fair?

We often give up power in order to gain something in return.

Power Transactions

In the case of Colonial Morocco, as Assia Lamzah covers in her article Urban Design and Architecture in the service of colonialism in Morocco, Moroccan residents lost to the French and had to give power up. In return, they were able to retain power because many traditional institutions retained power in government. In the case of labor agreements as covered by Pelle Ehnmerged in his book “Designing for Democracy at Work,” labor trades its power to the capitalist in return for wages. In the case of new home technologies such as automatic washers as covered by Tim Wu in his article “The Tyranny of Convenience,” or internet-connected home devices, as covered by Kashmir Hill in “The House that Spied on Me,” people traded hard-earned money for the convenience of these devices.

In each case, these trades ought to be equal, otherwise why would one agree to the bargain. We only rationally make a transaction when there is perceived trade in equal value – or when we believe we are getting an even better value than what we give up.

The challenge is that this trade is almost never fair.

In Morocco, the French colonialists secretly were ruling not only the protectorate as a whole but also the traditional institutions that most Moroccans believed were still under native control. In the case of capitalist labor transactions, the very nature of capitalism is to accrue greater value for owners, meaning that it is certainly not shared equally with labor. And in the case of technologies that provide such amazing conveniences, the trade is not equal either.

Power is about the ability to shape and control things. What happens when we use these technologies? One thing is that we purchase them for their convenience value. They do the work for us, and when they do the work for us, we actually lose our opportunity to develop the skill of completing that work. Another thing that happens with technologies is that they are often so complex that ordinary individuals don’t have the ability to shape or control them anyhow. The Smart home devices in Ms. Hill’s article constantly are sending data picked up in the home back to their home companies. In fact, the devices are legally still owned in part by the companies that sell them. So much for control. People have given up their ability to modify them in many ways in return for their technical sophistication, and they have given up their opportunity to do grow in the skill the technology is performing in return for convenience.

In all these transactions, there is an opportunity for more just transactions and fair sharing of power of the seller and buyer, employer and laborer, and government and its people. Where does the designer stand in all this?

Design and Power

According to Richard Buchanan, “design is the human power of conceiving, planning, and bringing to reality all of the products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of their individual and collective purposes.” That sounds a lot like design is equivalent to power.

Why do companies hire designers? They do so because they require designers’ capacities to shape things, like products and even behavior in the case of interaction design, in order to influence the company’s greater outcomes, like profit.

Designers sit at a critical place in society. They are trained to make things and devise plans to influence outcomes, and as such they are valuable in shaping how power is balanced in fulfilling different people’s needs through the products and services they design.

Our Next Steps as Designers

How will we as designers use this power? Will we use it to create unequal transactions, where consumers interests’ are not equally balanced with their employers’ interest for profit? Or will we fight to protect the integrity of our power by representing those who have the less powerful voice? In many cases, individuals are even unaware that they are getting the short end of the stick. Facebook, for example, is designed in many ways to hi-jack people’s cognitive functions and encourage more use, however unaware the user is. In this case, the user has lost the greatest power that he or she has – the power of the mind.

As designers, we need to realize the great power that we wield. We need to be arbiters of power, becoming more aware of the needs of an employer or client and the needs of the users. We need to be wary of our own selfishness as well. Will we balance our self-interest and needs for employment, prestige, and even power itself for the needs of the greater collective? And will we balance our own needs with the needs of the other – that person who most often is least like ourselves – the user?

These are the questions we need to grapple with as we head into the world, honing our craft in design. Theory is only useful insofar as it’s used. In the coming months, we’ll have our best opportunity to put these theories of design and power into practice. Let us put our power to practice in supporting justice, protecting everything that stands against love.